By the time their boat got back to the little private wharf behind Izkya's house the sun was much lower in the sky and the heat had eased a bit. Julien had managed to regain something of his earlier good mood. He was still worried about his situation, but he didn't think it would be fair to cast a shadow over the happiness of his hosts, who were after all doing their best to make his involuntary visit as pleasant as possible.
When they got back round to the patio they found a man there waiting for them. Izkya took him off to one side and had a brief conversation with him.
“That's Alko,” Niil told Julien. “He's one of her father's inner circle. He's got his own flybubble.”
Izkya came back to join them.
“The Noble Lord Alko tells me that we've got an invitation to the Tower tonight,” she told them. “Obviously I sent a message to my father about you when you got here, Julien, and now he wants to meet you. He thinks it should be possible for one of the Masters of the Order of Guides to get you back to your home. So we'd better go and get ready.”
“Come on,” said Niil. “We don't have long,so we'd better go and get washed and changed. We can't turn up at the Tower covered in dust.”
Clothes had been laid out ready for them – presumably Alko had warned Niria about the invitation. These clothes were nothing like the simple robes Julien had seen so far: these were clearly special ceremonial garments. On Julien's bed were a dark, bronze-green tunic and baggy black trousers that could be tightened at the ankle, and Niil had something similar in midnight blue, with dark grey trousers. Niil had already thrown his clothes off and now he helped Julien to remove his abba, and of course the result of being undressed by a naked boy was completely inevitable.
“Come on,” exhorted Niil. “We haven't got much time, so we'd better wash together!”
Julien thought he'd already experienced washing about as 'together' as it gets in the shower that morning. He was wrong. This time it wasn't a question of turn-and-turn-about back-scrubbing: instead,the idea now was just to rub soap randomly into your partner's body at any point where you could get at him, laughing a lot as you did it. Julien rather suspected that this particular unorthodox, inefficient and time-consuming method was something that Niil had invented on the spot, although he had to admit that it was certainly exciting. Things would almost certainly had got a lot more interesting if the gong - damn the man who made it! - hadn't reminded them that they weren't supposed to be having fun, but getting ready to meet one of the most powerful men in the world. So they got out of the shower, dried themselves and got dressed – that is to say, Niil dressed both of them.
“Not bad at all,” Niil observed once Julien was ready. “That hatik really suits you. I'm sure we've got time to cut your hair, and then you'll look absolutely perfect.”
“Not a chance!”
“But you look like a girl!”
“And how do you think I'll look with my head shaved? My mother would throw a fit if I went home with a bald head!”
“Trust me, when you get home your mother will be so happy to see you again that she won't care what your hair looks like.”
The way Julien's face clouded over told Niil that he'd spoken without thinking.
“Sorry,” he said. “I'm an idiot.”
“No, you're right,” said Julien. “There's not much chance of me getting home tonight, is there?”
He took a deep breath. “All the same,” he continued, “I'd still prefer to hold off on the haircut for now, because I really don't think that your style would suit me at all. And, talking of style, what type of shoes do we wear with this get-up?”
Niil indicated two pairs of something that looked like slippers made from braided silver.
“These,” he said. “They're called kamdris.”
Julien slipped his feet into them.
“Wow!” he exclaimed. “These are amazingly soft. You, can hardly feel them at all!”
“They're made of tak hair,” Niil told him. “It comes from Tandil.”
“That's the forest full of dangerous animals, right?”
“Exactly. In fact taks are extremely nasty. You can't buy footwear like this anywhere: the only way to get a pair is if you're given them by a First Lord.”
“Then it's very nice of him to lend them to us.”
“This isn't a loan. A First Lord doesn't lend anyone anything. These are gifts.”
“Wow!” said Julien again. “I suppose I can understand him giving a pair to you easily enough, but why me? He's never even set eyes on me!”
“You're with me, and that's good enough for him.”
“But I don't even come from your world!”
“That makes no difference. You're with me, and so people will treat you as well as they treat me. Or as badly, of course...”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well, if I had enemies and they caught us together they'd treat you as an enemy too. But don't worry,” he added, with the little grin that Julien was getting used to by now, “I'm a nice person. I don't have any enemies. Come on, we'd better not keep the First Lord waiting...”
They went to the porch, where they found Alko talking with Niria the stewardess. Izkya wasn't there yet, which gave Julien a chance to ask one more question.
“Listen, what do you call Izkya's father?” Julien asked.
Fortunately Niil was more patient than his cousin. “He's the First Lord of the Bakhtars, of course,” he answered.
“Yes, but... hasn't he got a name?”
“Oh, I see. Well, yes, obviously he has a name – it's Aldegard. But nobody uses it except for his immediate family. Everyone else just calls him 'First Lord'. Well, Izkya calls him 'Father', obviously...”
“And what do you call him?”
“Well, First Lord – or, if he insists, 'Uncle'.”
“Is he your mother's brother or your father's?”
“Neither. It's just because our Families are the same rank.”
Izkya arrived and Julien looked with some admiration at her outfit. She was wearing a hatik too, but quite apart from the fact that it made her look extraordinarily graceful, the material itself seemed to be made out of the night: it was like looking at a dark sky full of slowly-twinkling stars which shimmered as she moved. Her trousers were the colour of evening mist and were gathered at the ankles with circlets that looked like mother-of-pearl. The outfit was completed by kamdris and white stones in her hair that were like little stars that had escaped from the night sky of her tunic.
Julien had never taken the remotest notice of anything that a girl might be wearing. He'd always found the female obsession with fashion ridiculous, and hated listening to them talking about clothes almost as much as he hated the way they giggled when they were swapping secrets behind boys' backs. But at that moment he had an epiphany: Izkya was beautiful. Dressed in her finest clothes, there was no trace of the slightly snobby, short-tempered girl he thought he knew. This was unmistakeably a princess.
“Come on,” said Niil, tugging his sleeve. “And close your mouth: you look like a village idiot.”
Niria stopped them to check them over to make sure that they wouldn't disgrace their hostess. She gave them a satisfied smile, and apparently she didn't disapprove of Julien's 'long' hair too much because she reached out and tweaked a stray lock back into place. This gesture almost made Julien lose control of himself, because it reminded him so strongly of the home he was so far away from. It was all he could do to stop himself flinching away, because here was yet another woman who couldn't stop messing about with his hair. - and then he almost burst into tears at the thought of his mother, who did exactly the same thing to him every day before he left the house, no matter how often he begged her not to.
“Go on,” said Niria. “Alko will be waiting for you...”
Expect the unexpected
Alko's flybubble was a blue and green airship equipped with at least a dozen propellers that were painted with virulent vermilion spirals which were so dazzling that they almost called for sunglasses. The gondola was open, but there were metal hoops over the top, suggesting that some sort of a cover could be rigged if necessary. Lord Alko was busying himself at the prow end, where an array of cogs and levers formed the control panel.
The ship rose slowly and silently, and then the big propellers began to spin, the ship turned towards its destination and began to move forwards through the warm evening air.
Julian was entranced: here once again was that marvellous sense of total happiness he had experienced in his dreams. This was the way to fly – a gentle, silent cruise on a deck open to the fresh air, as opposed to being cooped up in the cramped cabin of a roaring jet plane. How could people have abandoned such a perfect means of travel?
He jumped when a a huge blue scarab with scarlet legs suddenly landed on the rail next to his hand. It was almost as big as his hand, in fact, and could have passed for a massive jewel. Now that was something you didn't see inside an aeroplane!
The white city was now spread out before them, although in the light of the setting sun it seemed to be made of gold and copper instead. And then, as they approached their destination, the sun disappeared over the horizon and night fell.
Julian gasped: at the same moment all of the towers stared to radiate light. It wasn't like the way buildings are lit up with light coming through their windows: instead it was the buildings themselves that started to glow with a sort of bioluminescence that started at ground level and spread progressively upwards until it reached the very tip of each tower. Each building had its own shade of colour, which blended harmoniously with those of the towers around it. The result was both wonderful and somehow disconcerting, as if some giant had poured the light of an immense rainbow over them.
The rest of the city was lit up as well, but in a more orthodox fashion, as thousands of windows emitted a golden light into the air. The stars overhead were shining too, and in the clear air of this world they seemed to Julien to be closer than ever.
“It's beautiful!” he breathed.
“It's the most beautiful city in the Nine Worlds,” agreed Niil. “There's nothing to match this anywhere, not even on Dvârinn.”
They were getting close to the harbour, the point where the river widened out into the lake. From up here the waters of the lake themselves were like a dark nothingness, but garlanded at its edge by the shining lights of the port area. Julian was leaning out, trying to see the place where they had moored their boat that afternoon, when he heard a sort of stifled groan coming from the front of the ship. He straightened up just in time to see Lord Alko put both hands to his neck and then collapse onto the deck. Then Niil shoved him violently onto the deck himself, at the same time yelling to Izkya, who was sitting in the stern, “Get down! Someone's shooting at us!”
In confirmation of this there were two thwacking noises from the ship's side, as if something had hit it and stuck there. It didn't take a lot of imagination to conjure up a picture of arrows, or possibly – more probably, even - crossbow darts.
Julien had hit his head on the deck, but that was the least of his concerns: he was thinking that the people attacking them were unlikely to stop with the killing of Alko, and also that a flybubble makes an awfully easy target. And if they fell a few hundred feet onto the houses below, they would be every bit as dead as they would be if an arrow or dart actually hit them. He turned to Niil.
“We've got to try landing,” he said. “Can you fly this thing?”
“I might be able to,” said Izkya, who had wriggled her way to join them. “Alko's been showing me how.”
Her voice was trembling, and it was only the need to do something that was keeping her from outright panic.
Alko was still making horrible gurgling noises, but they were becoming feebler. It was clear that he was dying, but there was nothing they could do for him. Izkya took a deep breath and started moving forwards on her hands and knees.
“Watch out!” warned Niil. “Keep your head down!”
At the same time they heard a new noise above their heads: the unmistakable hiss of escaping gas.
“Shit!” exclaimed Julien. “They've punctured the gasbag!”
“It's strong material,” Niil replied. “It won't tear open...”
He was fairly obviously trying, not entirely successfully, to convince himself as well as his companions.
By now the boys had followed Izkya to the pilot's position. They were reluctant to touch Alko, who was now silent, but his body was stopping anyone from reaching the controls. Another missile pinged off a metal panel somewhere, and that was enough to stir Julien into action: he grabbed the dead man's shoulders and pulled as hard as he could. The body rolled over, revealing a chest that was drenched in blood that looked black in the twilight. There was no sign of an arrow or dart, which must have ripped his throat open and then continued on its way.
Izkya groped over her head, found a lever and pulled, and the ship veered to the right. She pulled on another and the ship started to descend. They heard more impacts overhead, which would mean more holes in the gasbag, and now Julien could feel that the ship was going down quite quickly.
“You've got to get us over the lake!” shouted Niil.
Izkya was kneeling up, trying to identify the controls. The ship was zigzagging – it certainly wasn't acting like a 'dirigible' any more – and the canvas propellers were spinning madly as the ship fell through the air. Finally she found the correct levers and the aircraft, still lurching and swaying wildly, started heading towards the black expanse of the lake.
Julien gripped the rail and strained his eyes into the night, trying to find the enemy. Obviously they could only be in another flying machine, but because the ships were almost soundless he had no idea which way he should be looking. Next to him Niil popped his head above the rail, trying his hardest to work out where they were so that he could call out directions to Izkya, who had to keep her head down so as not to share the fate of the pilot.
They were a lot closer to the rooftops now. Julien felt almost as if he was in a lift whose cables had snapped. He could hear loose cloth flapping overhead, which was louder than the hiss of escaping gas.
“That's it!” cried Niil. “We're over the harbour!”
Well, thought Julien, at least they weren't going to end up splattered like a bug on a windscreen.
“We're going to have to jump!” he yelled. He had just realised that they were certain to die if they got caught underneath the collapsed gasbag or snagged on the frame of the sinking airship. But when he glanced overboard he couldn't tell how far above the water they were: the water was too smooth and there wasn't enough light. To judge from the lights of the port, though, they couldn't be very far above the surface.
“We're going to hit it in a moment!” he shouted. “We need to climb over the rail and hang onto the side of the ship, then we can let go when we're low enough.”
“But... they'll see us and shoot us!” objected Izkya.
“There's no choice. If we don't jump we'll get trapped in the wreckage and drown,” said Niil. “I hope you can swim, Julien.”
“Yes, I can.”
“Come on, then!”
They climbed over the rail and clung on, hoping they wouldn't have to wait too long. Julien didn't think he'd be able to hang on for very long anyway. But the ship was falling fast, following a glide-path that got steeper all the time. Then he heard Niil's voice.
“Ready? Then... now!”
Julien let go. He caught a tiny glimpse of the blurred glittering of the water below him, and then he felt a violent blow in his back, followed by a sharp pain, which in turn was immediately followed by the sting of the water as he hit the surface and rolled over. As he sank he thought that it was appalling luck to get hit like that at the last possible second.
The water wasn't particularly cold. In fact it was pleasantly cool, and he would have enjoyed swimming in it in other circumstances. But he thought that now, with an arrow probably penetrating his lung, he'd be lucky if he even made it back to the surface. To make things worse, if that was possible, in the complete darkness he couldn't even tell which way was up and which was down. If he tried to swim he could just as easily force himself deeper instead of climbing back towards the life-giving air...
Comments, reactions, questions and so on may as usual be sent to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org